We need a public school system that serves all of us
Edward W. Hazen Foundation with Gente Organizada, Youth Rise Texas, and Action In Montgomery
“The right to education means the right to have a prosperous and healthy community,” said Jesus Sanchez, co-founder and executive director of Gente Organizada in Pomona, California. Access to a free public education affords a community equal opportunity to prosper and participate in our democracy.
Yet, Republican Governor Greg Abbott of Texas wants to prevent undocumented children from going to public schools for free. He has made threats to contest Plyler v. Doe, a 1982 federal case that ruled all children, regardless of their citizenship status, have the right to a free public education according to the 14th Amendment. In the ruling of the case, Chief Justice Warren Burger declared, “…it is senseless for an enlightened society to deprive any children — including [undocumented children] — of an elementary education.”
Forty years later, countless students and families have benefitted from Plyler v. Doe. If families across the country lose the protection afforded to them under this case, it would make it more difficult, if not altogether impossible, for immigrant youth to access public education. That is why for this year’s American Education Week, Edward W. Hazen Foundation and our grantees are recognizing Plyler v. Doe for its essential role in establishing safe, just, and equitable schools for all!
“Public schools are a place where children build community and learn what’s going on in the world,” explains Roxanne Lawson, co-executive director of Youth Rise Texas in Austin, Texas. Take for example, Still We Rise, a school-based healing and resilience program facilitated by Youth Rise Texas for youth affected by parental removal due to detention, deportation, or incarceration. Students build bonds based on shared lived experiences. For children with close ties to immigration, the sense of belonging that welcoming schools provide is critical for combating hostile messages suggesting they do not belong in this country. “Public schools really cement a sense of belonging when you have teachers who love you, despite untrue prejudices about immigrants,” adds Roxanne.
Welcoming public schools also offer essential resources and opportunities for immigrant youth and parents to participate economically and politically in their neighborhoods. “Schools provide leadership development and opportunities for parents to exercise their voice to make systemic changes in which all of us can thrive,” says Tanushree Dutta Isaacman, lead organizer with Action in Montgomery (AIM) working throughout Montgomery County in Maryland. For example, AIM co-designed an after-school program that helped reduce absenteeism and improve students’ social-emotional behavior in a Title I elementary school. Despite the busy schedules of immigrant and low-income parents, many volunteered two hours a month and attended events where they learned organizing skills. From these events, parents improved their schools and neighborhoods. They built tenant associations in their apartment buildings, advocated for state funding for affordable housing, and fought for the expansion of pre-kindergarten. The contributions and civic participation of immigrants in our communities make neighborhoods healthier and stronger.
A threat to Plyler v. Doe is a threat against the well-being and safety of entire communities. Without the protections of Plyler v. Doe, schools can require proof of a student’s documentation status for enrollment and could also lead to scrutiny of their family’s immigration status, especially if revealed to the greater community. Jesus Sanchez describes it as a “true menace to our nation’s social stability,” where students and their families could be subjected to an onslaught of discrimination from peers, teachers, and adults in positions of power. This is even more alarming when paired with other systems of oppression that enable the exclusion of people from their communities, like law enforcement that have a long history of over-policing Black and Latinx youth.
Millions of U.S. children could also face enrollment barriers because their parents are undocumented, even if they were born in the United States. Children who are not enrolled in school miss out on opportunities to experience healthy developmental milestones and build bonds with their peers and caring adults. Instead, unschooled children face uncertain and dangerous conditions when left to roam the streets. Truancy — when a child under the age of 17 is repeatedly absent from school — has long been established as a warning sign of dropping out, and dropping out is linked to higher rates of contact with the criminal justice system. Moreover, if immigrant youth are too young to take on formal work, they can experience pressure to take on dangerous jobs in the underground economy. Many families rely on public schools as a place to keep their children safe while they work.
“Everyone deserves access to an education. For a democracy to succeed, we need a public school system that serves all of us,” declares Tanushree. If access to public education is contingent on citizenship status, we diminish our collective power to create a more just future. This is a dangerous outcome too great to risk. Our grantees across the nation are fighting to preserve everyone’s right to education. If you believe in the protections of Plyler v. Doe and believe human rights and dignity must prevail across this country, we urge you to connect with and support our grantees leading this fight.